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Who are the Marketing Experts in Professional Businesses?

post # 231 — November 3, 2006 — a Client Relations post

In recent weeks, two bloggers have raised a related and important question. Do marketers, particularly those in professional businesses, actually know anything?

Suzanne Lowe (Expertise Marketing) recently wrote

I have spent a career helping professional service firms market their experts and their collective expertise. But I have yet to hear a single person refer to their MARKETERS as experts. Do we marketers have any idea what makes one marketer more expert than the other? It’s intriguing to imagine that we could do better at identifying our hoped-for marketing team members if we thought more critically about what it takes to be a professional services marketing expert (especially since we often end up scrambling for just the right marketing talent, and we often end up settling for someone who has simply got the right number of notches on his or her marketing belt).

The amazing Seth Godin had a related post about this on October 17. He said:

Marketers and designers will be quick to tell you that marketing and design are critical to the success of any venture. That’s why it’s so sad/disturbing/surprising/wonderful to discover that so many successful ventures were created by amateurs. Yes, they were professionals at something …but the marketing and design was not created by a ‘professional’. The list is long, and runs from the Boy Scouts to Google, from Nike to the New York Yankees. One possible lesson is that marketing is easy. The other, more likely lesson is that marketing is way too important to be left to professionals.).

It doesn’t impugn the good intentions (or talents) of marketing directors in professional businesses to point out that, in fact, we probably KNOW very little about what works in professional firm marketing that we didn’t know 20 years ago. There’s a little bit more accumulated experience and wisdom, but not much.

Most of the advice given today (publicly and inside firms) is the same (sensible) advice that was flying around back then. If you want to check that, go back and look at the trade magazine articles in each profession concerning marketing. You’ll see the same recommendations then as you still do. Or read the old books and the new books.

My own tentative hypothesis is that professional business marketers (and consultants) probably know quite a bit about the processes of marketing (listen to your clients, get feedback, build relationships, form client teams, manage media relations, etc.) But I suspect we actually know very little about marketing itself, ie major breakthroughs in positioning, actually achieving differentiation and branding (as opposed to claiming it.)

Thinking back, I don’t know what I would point to as a major MARKETING achievements in the professional world. Just as Seth Godin has pointed, I can think of many professional businesses built by the professionals themselves (i.e. the marketing amateurs), but it’s very unclear (at least from the outside) what the marketing professionals contributed.

I’m not sure what I would offer as evidence of marketing experts at work. For example, I know a lot of firms have worked at improving client service and a lot of copies of my TRUSTED ADVISOR book have been bought and circulated, but I don’t know which firms if any to nominate as having pulled off a distinctive client service strategy. I know a lot who have tried, but few to nominate as successes and evidence of a real expert at work.

It’s clear internal marketers have helped with various marketing processes (client feedback, media relations, sales training.) But I don’t think these would qualify for Suzanne, Seth (or me) as examples of “innovative, creative experts” at work.

At the other end of marketing, what are we to make of advertising? It is astounding the commitment and dollars that Accenture is showing to its Tiger Woods ads and they are VERY creative and appealing, but is there any evidence that they are working? How come none of their IT or BPO competitors are copying them? Does that prove Accenture are marketing geniuses or marketing idiots?

In other professional businesses, others are beginning to dabble with advetising. For example, two nights ago I was surprised to see a TV ad for accounting firm Grant Thornton during the evening news. Courageous and innovative? Probably. It hasn’t been tried often, and the precedents are unfortunate. Brobeck, the aggressive Californian law firm did the same thing just before the tech bubble burst and the firm imploded out of existence.

One way that we could begin the discussion here is to ask the questions in a slightly different way. If we (please) exclude boasting about our own firms, our own accomplishments (or our own writing and consulting advice),

a) what would you point to as EVIDENCE that an expert, creative marketing advisor has made a real difference in a professional business?

b) what would you point to as the MARKETING successes in professional businesses over the past 20 years?


Martin Calle said:

What a great question! Today’s marketing experts are those lucky enough to ride the crest of the wave (i.e.: Starbucks, Nike or Solstice) during a company’s rapid growth phase – they are deemed “experts” when they are actually just in the right place at the right time and along for the ride. Is this an inflamatory statement? Not if you consider that once the business has become a mature earnings entity, these experts are unable to get the brand past the intersection of target audience and product benefit to resume rapid growth – so they chase consumer ears and eyeballs wherever they can be found.

posted on November 3, 2006

Patrick McEvoy said:

Brilliant post as usual David!

I’m an avid golfer, but other than watching Tiger Woods’ great slow-mo swing (which I’m fairly sure Accenture really couldn’t care less about,) I have been wondering how Accenture justifies the cost of all of this myself.

Maybe if we were all working on ad budgets of $750 million PLUS we’d be viewing all this somewhat differently.

Sort of reminds me of when I was in university and the marketing class started off with:

“Assume you are General Motors and have $650 million to spend this year on marketing….”

Well, we know where GM is and we sure know the rest of how” when the lunatics start running the asylum” finishes off.

Keep up the great stuf David.

Patrick McEvoy


Rainmaker Best Practices

posted on November 3, 2006

Tom Chandler said:

Perhaps many marketers aren’t viewed as “experts” because they’re not – at least in new media.

I’m a copywriter who just completed a round of blog pitches to prospects (Marketing Directors or higher).

I wasn’t expecting universal acceptance, but neither was I prepared for universal ignorance.

Did I expect them to abandon their print advertising wholesale in a move to online? No. Did I expect them to know a little about engagement marketing, blogs & social networking? Certainly.

It’s painfully clear when technical professionals fall behind the curve. It’s seemingly less apparent when marketers do so, and I wonder if the perception of marketing as a “soft” career hasn’t allowed its practitioners to quitely fall behind.

posted on November 3, 2006

Ed Gabrielse said:

I will make three observations:

First, there are very few marketing breakthroughs in any business and when there are, they are rarely the sole responsibility of a single person. Usually it is the design of a product/service and its application. Sometimes it is the slight tweaking of a perception that leads to market domination.

Second, heirarchical organizations afford the best opportunity for such breakthroughs because there is much less opportunity for second guessing than in a flat organization. In the last two decades, there have really been only two marketing breakthroughs in carving out a new or expanded market for professional service firms. One is SOX, the other is the ACLU.

Third, anytime a marketing professional can do a necessary task at a lower cost than a partner or manager, economic sense and the scarcity of accounting/tax majors suggests that such a task should be delegated. Such delegation can be a substantial contribution to the success of the firm. If, in addition, that marketing professional can create enthusiasm for a strategic vision, that is a plus.

Could Jack Welch have done everything his many marketing departments did? Probably. But it would not have been a very good use of his time and talents. He was able to give his VPs of Marketing the freedom to be creative and an equity position in the results. How many professional firm leaders are able or willing to do the same?

posted on November 3, 2006

Peter Macmillan said:

I recently came across a one-page note by Jan Armstrong of the University of New Mexico headed “Notes on the Psychology of Expertise”.

Jan’s framework suggests a few things professional service firm marketers (and the rest of us) could usefully reflect upon when assessing their (our) true level of expertise.

Jan’s core proposition is that experts are different from novices (non-experts) in at least 5 ways (see below).

I wonder how many marketing professionals in professional service firms can really distinguish themselves from novices (or amateurs) when they rely too much on marketing process and procedures to the detriment of innovation and big-picture thinking.

1. Novices rely on formal rules and procedures to guide them. Experts rely to a greater degree on their accumulated experience.

2. Novices are highly conscious of the task performance process. This is a distraction and creates additional “load” on cognitive processing. As expertise grows, performance of the task becomes automatic. This cognitive phenomenon is called “automaticity.”

3. As expertise is acquired, the learner’s cognitive processing system becomes more efficient at processing new information. As a result, experts can see the whole picture. They are also more aware of the specific circumstances in which they are working. They have good self-monitoring skills. Experts can make even very complex, difficult tasks look easy.

4. The expert has a larger number of strategies, and more effective strategies, for performing the task. This may be the most critical difference between the expert and the novice. Experts know how to get out of trouble because they have multiple strategies for dealing with the unexpected.

5. Experts are more flexible than novices. They rely on intuition in ways that novices find difficult to comprehend.

posted on November 5, 2006

Michelle Golden said:

Where to begin…as a former in-house marketer in both accounting and law firms, and as a member (and leader) of Association for Accounting Marketing since 1995, I think I have some perspective on this that hasn’t yet been shared.

  1. Most firms don’t know what to look for (skill wise) when they hire marketing professionals. Most are hiring one because their competitors did. Most marketers weren’t hired for a particular job description. Many don’t even have job descriptions. Some don’t even know to whom they actually report. And many report to people who have no idea how to utilize or measure their efforts, evaluate their recommendations, and no authority to approve their initiatives until the “next partner meeting.”
  2. Firms (since the early 1990s at least) tended to hire over-qualified people give the low complexity level of (approved) projects and budget they gave these people to work with. — in other words, they hired people with very creative ideas and they proceeded to stifle them by rejecting the most innovative ideas, failing to provide dollars, support persons for the pros to work with—then they were surprised when these people left…
  3. Then firms began replacing those “first” directors—more experienced persons—with less expensive new marketing grads or hiring folks from the only other low paying industry: non-profits. To this day, the marketing salaries in accounting firms lag $30-40K/yr behind comparable positions in law firms. In fact, avg salaries for marketing people are still between $45 and $75K for both professions.
  4. Now firms are again hiring more experienced people, and paying a little better (not much), but veteran marketers are leaving firms in record numbers.
  5. Budgets for the marketers to work with (if they are even formalized) are ridiculously low compared to all other industries. The average firm allocates only 1.5-2.5% of PY gross revenues for the subsequent marketing year. This amount includes many items that the marketer tells the firm will have little or no ROMI such as obligatory sponsorships, sporting tickets used mostly by employees and friends, etc. — usually expenses over which the marketer has little or no control or input. And many marketers don’t even have access to their firm’s financial information including revenues by sector and historical or projected marketing expenditures.
  6. Marketers get sucked into non-client activities in the firm such as party-planning, morale building, and recruiting (not that marketers shouldn’t be involved in marketing the firm to new employees, too, but it is a distraction from new biz development).
  7. Marketers in law firms are less micromanaged, less required, on a daily basis, to “prove your worth” than in CPA firms, but both positions operate in environments in which feedback of any sort is scare, written marketing plans and budgets are the exception and not the rule, and getting “time” with decision-makers is not easy.
  8. Most firms approve marketing initiatives as they arise. But these approval processes are long and tedious. Often the optimal timing for the initiative is long passed by the time partners get around to approving them.
  9. Partners, managers and key team members have little or no incentive or motivation to participate in marketing efforts because they are rewarded for production. I don’t care how good a marketing professional is, he or she can only do so much on his or her own to market IN LIEU of the firm’s practitioners. Many of the initiatives approved that involve partner/manager time (such as those great suggestions in Trusted Advisor) fall flat due to capacity constraints and other organizational barriers including lack of prioritization of these things.
  10. Firms stop listening to their in-house marketers and will celebrate the same advice from an “outsider” that they snubbed from their own marketer. I see this often and experienced it from the inside, too. It is astounding.

I could go on and on. Basically, there is little alignment between (or forethought about) what a firm wants versus what it needs both with regard to marketing talent. It’s just as great a problem when firms hire high level people and hamper their abilities as it is when they hire newbies and expect them to be Coca-Cola.

posted on November 5, 2006

Charles H. Green said:

An added note on the Accenture Tiger Woods example…

I understand (second hand) that Bearing Point’s expenditure a few years ago with Phil Mickelson was very succesful for them. “Lefty” was very open and sociable with the partners (unlike Vijay Singh, who has a reputation to the contrary). It was a great thrill for a lot of partners to play a round with him. to bring a client, or just to meet him—and to be able to say to friends that they had done so. A little bit of bragging rights. Partner motivation may have been an objective, not the classical role of marketing promotion.

About 10 years ago, Deloitte and Touche had a similar ad campaign. Each in the series listed a client, with the grammatical structure of, “Who counts Starbucks’ beans? The answer is, Deloitte & Touche.” I have to believe this series was gratifying to existing clients; but even moreso to the employees of the D&T, because at that time the Big 5 (which it was at the time) weren’t all that well known to the public.

Suddenly, here they were—members of the least-famous Big X audit firm, walking through the airport on an anonymous commute to nowhere much—and suddenly their corporate name is plastered the airport, connecting their employer to well known brands (Starbucks, Boeing). Kinda makes you proud to finally have a luggage tag that people recognize, and to be able to (finally!) explain to your aunt just what that company you work for actually does.

The objectives of marketing campaigns, at least in these two examples, can be different for professional services firms. Such examples probably embolden firm leadership to feel confident in rejecting traditional functional marketing advice, in favor of deep industry experience—occasionally with good results, occasionally not.

posted on November 5, 2006

David (Maister) said:

So, Charlie, one of your key points is that we should interpret much of the advertisng we do see as a way to win in the (fierce) market to attract and retain staff. Great point!

Michelle, apart from the difficulties you outline so well, does your incredible vantage point allow you to say publicly what you thought were the exceptions? What were the great marketing moves in accounting or law? Who did something really neat?

posted on November 5, 2006

Marco Antonio P. Gonçalves said:

On the Seth Godin example of successful ventures with amateur marketing, wouldn’t it be the case that Google, Nike and others like Apple (in the late 70s) had products and services so good that a professional marketing campaign would not be necessary for them to sell and/or become a huge success? I don’t know about Nike, but Google and Apple grew a lot on word of mouth.

Regarding the comment by Michelle, they pretty much summarize one of the main issues faced by marketers working in professinal services firms. I work at a law firm and I can say that law firms hire marketers only because other firms did it (a new trend), they don’t know how to use them and, because of that, marketers are many times assigned to low relevance or non-marketing activities. And since law firms/lawyers don’t want to change their status quo, there’s not much room for breakthroughs and innovations.

posted on November 6, 2006

Michael Webb said:

David, > “What would you point to as EVIDENCE that an expert

> creative marketing advisor has made a real difference

> in a professional business?”

Isn’t the purpose of marketing and selling to generate a series of actions on the part of the customer? To me, measuring those actions is the only way to determine the effectiveness of selling or marketing. If more actions were created, more value was created, pure and simple.

I mean, before someone will give you their business, you first need their attention, and their trust (I learned that from you, David!). You know you’ve gotten their attention when they read your headlines or respond to your offers of assistance. You know you’ve gotten their trust when they cooperate with you, and give you their information. Whether your actions are deemed “marketing” or “selling” is immaterial. The point is the same — to generate a relationship that leads to sales. Marketing simply uses media to do what a salesperson would do in person if they could be in that many places at once.

I believe people have gotten lost in traditional (and mistaken) functional assumptions about marketing, i.e., that it is about image, and brand, and product/position/price/promotion/etc. The problem happens when those functional goals do not support the goal of the firm.

If the goal of the firm is to make money now, and in the future, you need to figure out which kinds of clients you want, and where you can find them (now and in the future). You also need to devise ways to help those prospective clients solve more of the kinds of problems you want to help them solve. Anything that does not create value for you (or for the client) in pursuit of that purpose is waste and should be eliminated.

In other words, a firm’s actions should be dictated by its purpose. If the purpose is to make money with certain kinds of clients and certain kinds of work, the purpose of the brand is not to have a recognizable name. It is to make finding those clients and selling that work easier. You don’t judge an advertisement by whether it creative or distinctive. You judge it by how much response it got, and the extent to which those who responded were qualified prospects.

There are tons of companies (not just professional services firms) out there who are spending on branding and awareness “exercises,” while their salespeople are “turning over rocks” looking for opportunities to sell (that’s bad). That’s because people are trapped in functional (and unwarranted) assumptions about marketing and selling, rather than thinking it through as a system.

I don’t know how Accenture is measuring the effectiveness of their Tiger Woods campaign. I just know they ought to be, and that if it can’t be tied to actions that generate revenue in some way it probably isn’t creating a return. Lots of businesses have lost their way thinking marketing is an end in itself, a function that must be managed separately from selling. It isn’t.

I know this is a bit radical, perhaps. Do you think I’m off base?

posted on November 6, 2006

David (Maister) said:

You know that *I* don’t Michael. For those of you who don’t know him, check out his website. He’s taking the disciplines and techniques of “process efficiency” that have always been applied in manufacturing settings, and started to apply them to sales and marketing. Good stuff. The trouble is, my question still goes unanswered: who’s DOING this?

posted on November 6, 2006

Michelle Golden said:

Forgive me, David, you’re absolutely right in that I didn’t address the final part of your post…the question about the great things.

I got myself caught up in the first part and wanted to be sure to emphasize that in many instances, what the firm does and what the marketer wants to achieve are two very different things. Now, it can certainly be argued that if a marketer finds him or herself “unheard” in the firm, he or she could (and perhaps very well should) shake the tree harder or move on to another organization that listens to and values the advice and ideas.

A funny little story to illustrate this a bit is one of my freelance designers who used to work in a major law firm in St Louis. He showed me his portfolio and on the right hand side of an 11×17 page was a beautiful and brilliant ad intended for the placement in the National Law Journal (c 1999). I gasped at the ad, its “cutting edge” message and design. He said, yes, this is the ad I designed….(turning the page to show me the one behind it)…and this is the one they approved. You can see where this is going… Everything cool, different and neat was eliminated from the ad. It now looked like every other law firm ad. So sad. So true.

Neat stuff you want…sure. Womble Carlyle (law) was pretty breakthrough with their bulldog branding in the 90s back when most law firms still had every partner’s name listed on the letterhead — even if there was no room for the letter!

Lisa Dutton, a brilliant marketer in Canada got her law firm energized to LIVE their brand with behaviors of exceptional hospitality demostrating clients come first. Lisa moved on to another business venture shortly after making these strides.

Another exceptional marketer is Lyne Noella who, back in the mid 90s, made a cool client-focused video—a testament to the WI firm’s ability to help clients grow over the years. She also effectively preached personal marketing plans (frankly, results happen not so much from cool branding as from diligence in creating situations where people talk to people) back when partner hired marketers because they didn’t want to market themselves. After that firm, she went to Larson Allen (in MN) and created what was one of the best image overhauls I’d seen to date. Subsequently, she joined Stonefield Josephson in CA where she’s done fantastic work creating a “Back Porch” section of her firm’s website—really humanizing their people in a great way. From the success of the featured partners, she rolled out a firm cookbook for the holidays that I talked about on my blog, here.

Also humanizing their people is a UK law firm with outrageous bios (humor) and artful/funny photos that I blogged about, here.

Bottom line is, though, while all these things are really great, effectiveness in business development comes down to individuals talking time to talk to (and LISTEN to) the right people (usually customers and referral sources) and convey competence and confidence while doing so. When marketers help make this happen more frequently and at a higher level (and many, many marketers do) that is what should be most celebrated!

posted on November 15, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Praise where praise is due, Michelle. Thanks to you not only for all these wonderful illustrations, but for the professionaism in following up. Anyone else got someone / something we should add to our praise list?

posted on November 15, 2006

Grant Aldrich said:

Hi David,

For the professional service firm, I believe successful marketing direction and quantifiable contributions are evident in the firm’s website.

Not only can the results be effectively measured, but it reveals the firm’s (and internal marketing department’s) overall marketing philosophy and understanding of how professional services are sold.

We all know that selling professional services is largely based on the effective transfer of firm knowledge. Which entails not only the knowledge of solutions and service lines, but the knowledge of its professionals, and the knowledge gained in terms of experience from previous clients and engagements.

It’s also a value-added benefit of any marketing program to demonstrate to the prospect early in the buying cycle that the firm values their time, and makes a considerable effort to educate them.

So, how does the website provide us with the evidence that the firm does in fact understand these principals?

I think the first indicator is that the firm has a content-driven website. It shows the firm is savvy enough to understand that the website is an ideal medium to convey this information (Where else can information be displayed with such precision and be so accessible?).

We can additionally look at certain elements within the website. For instance:

1. Is the site a knowledge repository? Can whitepapers, webcasts, webinars, etc. be easily accessed?

2. Are the professionals of the firm showcased on the site? Can data and details on each individual be found?

3. Can I find case studies and/or research of work with previous clients?

4. Is the content organized in an intuitive information architecture that is simple to follow?

These elements are not ‘standard’ for most professional service websites. Current, interactive, and well-written content is not easy to produce. It takes serious dedication, conviction, and resources to continually pressure the firm’s professionals to document their work for the next case study or whitepaper. Producing webcasts or other finished products from that raw data is another feat entirely.

For these reasons, do the discussed elements not provide conclusive evidence of the firm’s grasp on the fundamentals of a knowledge-based sale? I believe it definitely demonstrates evidence of a forward-thinking marketing department that is making viable contributions to the selling process.

I would also make the argument that by making this information easily and readably accessible early in the prospect buying cycle, the firm has the opportunity of making a great first impression that they not only value the client’s time, but genuinely care about giving the client insights and tools to base future educated questions on.

Ill stop there for the sake of time, but I feel I could go on all day about this! I look forward to anyone’s feedback.


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Discussion said:

Charlie, one of your key points is that we should interpret much of the advertisng we do see as a way to win in the (fierce) market to attract and retain staff. Great point!

posted on January 29, 2008

Bill McIntosh said:

It’s clear internal marketers have helped with various marketing processes (client feedback, media relations, sales training.) But I don’t think these would qualify for Suzanne, Seth (or me) as examples of “innovative, creative experts” at work.

You say that the help of internal marketers don’t qualify as examples of “innovative, creative experts” at work. Why is that?

posted on March 8, 2008